| || ||
From "The Appeal to Antiquity", Chapter One of The Early Papacy to the Synod of
Chalcedon in 451 | Adrian Fortescue | Ignatius Insight
Quite a number of Christians of all
denominations now discuss the possibility of healing, at last, the schisms that
are the tragedy and the scandal of Christendom. It seems that the war of
1914-1918 had something to do with the spread of this feeling. The war in no
way really affected the question. The scandal of our unhappy divisions was just
as great before 1914. Yet it must count as some good out of so much evil if the
soldiers, perhaps especially the army chaplains who returned, became more
conscious of it. They saw in the Allied armies groups of men, all professing to
follow the same Master, yet, even in the face of death, unable to say their
Much of this discussion concerns a possible amalgamation of Protestant bodies.
So far it does not affect Catholics; except that we can, we must, sympathize
with any attempt to heal any schism, at least in the hope that such movements
may lead eventually to the reunion that alone really matters.
From whichever camp a man approaches the question of reunion, he must see that
no reconciliation can be anything like adequate unless it involves that
communion, by far the largest of all, which obeys the Pope of Rome. One party
in the Church of England is specially conscious of this: the Romanizing section
of the High Church group. In this section there are men, clergymen, but laymen
too, who have come around in an astonishing way from the ideas of the Reformers.
They not only long for reunion with the Holy See; they are prepared to accept
the Pope's primacy, to accept it, within limits, as being of divine right.
But there is papacy and papacy. In earlier days, they urge, the papacy was not
what it has become in the Roman communion since. In the early Church the papacy
was a far more moderate authority; there was a primacy then, but it was a
constitutional primacy. Out of this, in the Roman communion, an
unconstitutional papacy, an irresponsible autocracy, has grown. The Anglican of
this school could submit to a constitutional papacy, not to the arbitrary rule
now claimed by the Pope. So, such Anglicans suggest, let us concentrate on the
question of the papacy in the early Church. In order to determine a limit, let
us take the year Of the Synod of Chalcedon, 451, and discuss what the Church
recognized as the Pope's authority before that. The advantage of such a limit
is that (in this view) all branches of the Church-Roman Catholics, Orthodox and
Anglicans acknowledge the Church at least down to that year; to all of us this
early period is the standard, and we all claim that our religion is that of the
Catholic Church at least down to 451. The Bible, then, and the voice of the
Church down to 451 supply a common ground for discussion. The Romanizing
Anglican is confident that by examining this standard period, we shall find
that there was then indeed an acknowledged Roman primacy (so far he is on our
side, against many of his co-religionists) but that it was a constitutional
primacy. Therefore Romanists, too, accepting this undoubted standard, will see
themselves obliged, not indeed to give up the papacy, but to reduce it to its
primitive limits. When they do so, the great hindrance to reunion between them
and the rest of the Church will be happily removed. The severed Church will
heal her gaping wounds, the present scandal of Christendom will cease, the
seamless robe of Christ will again be united, under a constitutional primate.
Each side in our long controversy will have yielded something--they, their
rejection of any primacy; we, our arbitrary monarchy--so we shall meet halfway.
Meanwhile, it has been urged, we have already in this original constitutional
papacy the authority of the Church that an Anglican can recognize and obey. It
is no use to say that the constitutional papacy no longer exists, on his own
showing. It lives in its voices in the documents of that early age still
extant; it is a living authority, just as much as the Bible. Obey what that
primitive papacy commanded in like circumstances, what you think it would
command today, if it had not disappeared under the exaggerations of a later
age; and you have your authority for the Church, at least as good an authority
as that of the Protestant, who obeys what the Bible commands in similar
Such a position is riddled with impossibilities. First, we cannot admit that it
is necessary for a Catholic today to examine the documents of the years 1 to
451 in order to know what is the nature of the primacy that Christ gave to his
Church. We believe in a Church that exists and lives all days, even to the end
of the world, guided by Christ, infallible in faith and morals as long as she
exists. We have exactly the same confidence in the divine guidance of the
Church in 1870 as in 451. To be obliged to hark back some fifteen hundred
years, to judge for yourself, according to the measure of your scholarship,
what the documents of that period imply, would be the end of any confidence in
a living authority. It is a far worse criterion for religion than the old
Protestant idea of the Bible only. We say that it is impossible for a plain man
to make up his own religion out of sixty-six books (seventy-three if you count
the deuterocanonical books), written at different times, and not specially for
his difficulties now. It is even more obviously impossible if to these you add
about a hundred volumes of Migne.  All these methods of taking some early
documents, whether the Bible or the Fathers, and making them your standard,
mean simply a riot of private judgment on each point of religion. People
disagree and will continue to disagree about the interpretation of ancient
documents, of early Fathers, even more than of the books in the Bible. When one
Anglican has admitted that he finds a constitutional papacy in the Fathers and
councils down to 451, another Anglican, possibly still more learned in
patrology, will deny that these old texts mean any real primacy at all. We
shall go on arguing about the meaning of the Fathers even more hopelessly than
we have argued for centuries about the meaning of Matthew 16:18, when Jesus
said to Peter, "Thou art Peter; and upon this rock I will build my church,
and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it" (Douay-Rheims). The only
possible real standard is a living authority, an authority alive in the world
at this moment, that can answer your difficulties, reject a false theory as it
arises and say who is right in disputed interpretations of ancient documents.
A further fallacy of this view is that, because Romanists, Orthodox and
Anglicans (not really all Anglicans, by the way; the Evangelicals acknowledge
the Bible only and have Article VI plainly in their favor) recognize the Church
down to 451, this is therefore to be the standard. This is the usual High
Church fallacy of supposing that these communions together make up the Church,
and then taking as your standard the points on which they agree. The Armenian
and Copt, both representing large national churches, both baptized and not
having (in some sense) lost their baptismal life, object very strongly to
including the Synod of Chalcedon. They want to stop at 431. But then the
Assyrian  could object to this equally strongly, quite as strongly as the
Anglican objects to the First Vatican Council. The Arian, if such a thing is
left, objects to Nicea in 325. So you will have to come back to the Bible only.
Then we shall quarrel over the question concerning which books form the Bible;
and the higher critic, the Broad Anglican, will by no means admit that all that
is in even the protocanonical books is authentic. Where is your standard now?
What is the good of a standard that already supposes what you are going to
Further, the idea of a dead past in which the Church was united, and a present
in which it is not, means really that the original Church, founded by Christ,
has ceased to exist. A society that has become three or more separate societies
no longer exists. This is so obvious that no one would think of disputing it,
unless he had some controversial axe to grind. Consider the case of any other
society, where no one has anything at stake in his view of what happened. In
1914 there was an Austro-Hungarian State. Now, that state broke up into a
German-Austrian Republic, a separated Hungary, a Czecho-Slovak Republic, part
of Poland, a kingdom of Southern Slavs. What was the result? Where is the
original Austro-Hungarian State? It no longer exists.
We cannot then admit any criterion of this kind, nor any necessity to go back
to some ancient period, and documents of a former age, to find in them the
authority of the Church of Christ. That would not be a living authority at all.
In the same way a man could pretend that he belongs to the Church of Jupiter
and that he finds in the works of Livy the authority that governs his church.
But who would admit that there is such a church now existing or that these are
a living authority?
Our view of the Church is altogether different. We believe that, whatever may
happen, the Church of Christ still lives and will live to the end of the world.
Christ said so. She remains always what he founded--one united society. Her
rebel children may leave her and set up rival churches of their own. This is
tragic; it is the great tragedy of Christendom; but it does not affect the
unity of the original Church, for unity is of her essence. Nothing can destroy
that, because her Founder is almighty and promised that she should last always,
till the end of the world. The fact that many Christians have left the Church
of Christ is not new; it is almost as old as Christianity itself. From the time
of the first Gnostic sects, of which we read in the New Testament, through the
great Arian schism, through Nestorianism and Monophysitism, through the
Paulicians and the schism of Cerularius, through the heresies of the
Albigensians and the Reformation, there has been a procession of sects cut away
from the Church that Christ founded. Anglicans are fond of saying that it is a
"fact" that the Catholic Church is now divided. It is a fact that
there are many Christians who have left her, that Christendom is divided; it is
not a fact that the Church is divided. They might as well say that it is a fact
that the Church was no longer visibly one in Arian days. If ever it were so,
then the original Church would no longer exist; the gates of hell would have
prevailed. Many things are possible, heresy and schism are possible; but that
is not possible. So we believe in the one visible Church today just as much as
that there was such a Church from Pentecost to the year 451. We look to this
Church for guidance in religion, as she is now, as she teaches this year. The
volumes of Migneare of great interest, but they are not necessary for us to
know what the Church of Christ teaches. There is, indeed, a special halo around
the venerable antiquity of the first centuries; but the Church was not more
guided by our Lord then than she is now: The criterion of faith about the
papacy for us is what the Catholic Church teaches today. We shall never get
forward in discussion with people on anyone dogma till we agree about this:
that the authority of the Church today is the criterion for all dogmas.
 I Patrologię cursus
completus: Series gręca, 161 vols.
(Paris, 1886); Series latina, 221
vols. (Paris, 1844-1866): the great collection of the works of the Greek and
Latin Fathers, edited by Fr. J. P. Migne.
 The Rev. F.W Puller, as one instance, makes much of appeal to antiquity as
the one criterion of the true faith and dismisses any other attitude as
"rationalistic, not to say heretical". (The Primitive Saints and
the See of Rome, 3rd ed. [London:
Longmans, 1914], author's preface, pp. xxviii-xxix, and appendix M, pp.
Our objection to antiquity as the final standard is not that we admit or fear
that antiquity may be against the claims of the Pope. On the contrary, we are
convinced it supports them entirely as the quotations in this book, I hope,
will show. Our objection is that antiquity as the final standard throws every
article offaith to each man's private opinion, just as hopelessly as appeal to
the Bible only. Good and learned men of different sects disagree as to what the
early Fathers believed, what exactly their words mean, as much as they disagree
about the teaching of the Bible. The Anglican appeals to antiquity against the
Pope; the Presbyterian appeals to the same antiquity against any bishops; the
Unitarian and nearly all Protestant leaders in Germany and Holland now appeal
against the Trinity. The appeal to the faith of the early Church means really
what you, by virtue of your studies, think the early Church believed. This is
as essentially Protestant, as subjective, as to make each man's private
judgment of the meaning of Bible texts his final standard; and it is fifty
times as difficult in practice. The Catholic criterion is what the living
Church, guided always by God, teaches today. This, and this alone, is a real,
objective standard of belief, about which there neither is nor can be any
doubt, once you know what the Church of Christ is.
 The Assyrian Church of the East, once popularly known as the Nestorian
Church, which rejected the Council of Ephesus, 431.
Related IgnatiusInsight.com Articles, Book Excerpts, and Interviews:
The Essential Nature and Task of the Church |
Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger
On the Papacy, John Paul II, and the Nature of the Church |
Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger
Peter and Succession | Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger
"Primacy in Love": The Chair Altar of Saint Peter's in Rome | Joseph
St. Peter and the Primacy of Rome | Stephen K. Ray
Papal Authority in von Balthasar's Ecclesiology | Raymond Cleaveland
Church Authority and the Petrine Element | Hans Urs von Balthasar
Motherhood of the Entire Church | Henri de Lubac, S.J.
Mater Ecclesia: An Ecclesiology for the 21st Century |
Donald Calloway, M.I.C.
The Papacy and Ecumenism | Rev. Adriano Garuti, O.F.M.
The Church Is the Goal of All Things | Christoph Cardinal Schönborn
Excerpts from Theology of the Church | Charles Cardinal Journet
Authority and Dissent in the Catholic Church | Dr. William E. May
St. Ignatius of Antioch and the Early Church | Kenneth D. Whitehead
A Short Guide to Ancient Heresies | Kenneth D. Whitehead
Studying The Early Christians: The Introduction to We Look For
the Kingdom | Carl J. Sommer
The Everyday Lives of the Early Christians | An interview with Carl J. Sommer
Church and State in Early Christianity | Hugo Rahner, S.J.
His Story and the History of the Church | An Interview with Dr. Glenn W. Olsen
The Early Papacy to the Synod of Chalcedon in 451
Adrian Fortescue | Edited by Alcuin Reid
Adrian Fortescue, a British apologist for the Catholic faith in the early part of the 20th century, wrote this classic of clear exposition on the faith of the early Church in the papacy based upon
the writings of the Church fathers until 451. No ultramontanist, Fortescue can be a keen critic of personal failings of various Popes, but he shows through his brilliant assessment of the writings
of the Church fathers that the early Church had a clear understanding of the primacy of Peter and a belief in the divinely given authority of the Pope in matters of faith and morals.
Referring to the famous passage in Matthew 16:18 where Jesus confers his authority upon Peter as the head of the Apostles, and the first Pope, Fortescue says that, while Christians can continue to
argue about the exact meaning of that passage from Scripture, and the various standards that are used for judgments about correct Christian teaching and belief, "the only possible real standard is
a living authority, an authority alive in the world at this moment, that can answer your difficulties, reject a false theory as it arises and say who is right in disputed interpretations of ancient
Fortescue shows that the papacy actually seems to be one of the clearest and easiest dogmas to prove from the early Church. And it is his hope through this work that it will contribute to a
ressourcement with regard to the office of the papacy among those in communion with the Bishop of Rome, and that it will assist those outside this communion to seek it out, confident that it
is willed by Christ for all who would be joined to him in this life and in the next.
Also available from Ignatius Press: The Greek Fathers: Their Lives and Writings, by Adrian Fortescue.
Adrian Fortescue was a priest, author and highly respected scholar from England who lived in the early twentieth century. He wrote
several books on Church history and on the liturgy.
If you'd like to receive the FREE IgnatiusInsight.com e-letter (about
every 2 to 3 weeks), which includes regular updates about IgnatiusInsight.com
articles, reviews, excerpts, and author appearances,
please click here to sign-up today!
| || || |